Move over Arthur Miller, there’s a fresh playwright in town with a steaming hot take on “witch hunts.” Unlike the witches in Miller’s staple of American canon, “The Crucible,” the accused in Kimberly Belflower’s “John Proctor is the Villain” are very likely guilty. Fusing the #MeToo movement with rural Georgia in 2018, this biting and exquisite world-premiere play from Studio Theatre explores the modern lives of teenage girls, when their high school class dives into a unit on “The Crucible.”
…biting and exquisite world-premiere play…riveting…
The hot pink program and bright pop soundtrack welcoming audiences into the recently renovated Studio Theatre make clear this isn’t some stodgy old play. Instead, we dive in to the action with a pointed definition of “sex,” since budget cuts have relegated abstinence-only sex education to the English teacher, Carter Smith (Dave Register), at Helen County High. Mr. Smith isn’t some dour middle-age lecturer. He’s young and handsome, kind and flexible with deadlines, and hip with pop culture. It’s no wonder the girls in his class squeal over how big his feet are or that time he wore tight-fitting sweatpants to an athletic event.
Mr. Smith saves the day when the school rejects a proposal for a Feminism Club from four of his Junior Honors Lit pupils: Beth (Miranda Rizzolo), a goody-two-shoes; Ivy (Resa Mishina), Beth’s best friend; Nell (Deidre Staples), the new kid from Atlanta; and Raelynn (Jorden Slattery) who is learning how to be single after her seven-year relationship with Lee (Zachary Keller) ended when he cheated with her best friend, Shelby (Juliana Sass). With Mr. Smith as faculty sponsor, the Feminism Club is off and rolling, under the leadership of its president and secretary, Beth. Soon, Mason (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio), an adorable slacker, gets tossed into the club out of a desperate need for an English extra-credit.
Meanwhile in class, they’ve begun reading “The Crucible,” digging into the story of John Proctor, declared by Mr. Carter as “one of the best characters ever.” When Shelby, Raelynn’s ex-best friend, suddenly returns to school after an unexplained months-long absence and Ivy’s father is accused of inappropriate touching by his ex-employee, the students are forced into a reckoning. Should they still #BelieveWomen when the men in question are their trusted friends and family?
Fear not if you never read or don’t remember “The Crucible.” The script gives the key context: it’s a 1953 play about the Salem Witch trials, which is an allegory for McCarthyism. In their classroom discussions, the students unpack the motivations of “The Crucible’s” characters. Why were women dancing in the woods if they weren’t witches? Perhaps they just needed to let loose and blow off some steam to cope with life in a patriarchal small town. These teens can certainly relate.
“John Proctor is the Villain” gives empathetic attention to the lives of young women, including their full spectrum of silliness, rage, and self-consciousness. We see how girls shrink themselves, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said in a quote the teens understandably misattribute to Beyonce. While Belflower’s script refuses to shy from the painful coming-of-age experience when girls learn to see the predators that lurk in plain sight, she also celebrates the joys of female friendships, helping us to see the children inside the young women.
The set, designed by Luciana Stecconi, uncannily captures a public high school English classroom, with harsh overhead lighting and homemade projects on “Women Writers of Georgia” adorning the walls. Desks and plastic chairs are rearranged between scenes to a pop-rock instrumental track, composed by sound designer Kathy Ruvana, and hazy lighting designed by Jesse Belsky. The heights of teen fashion, constrained by school dress codes, are well-captured by Moyenda Kulemeka with Captain America and sports team t-shirts for Lee, contrasted with Beth’s preppy skirts. For better or worse, the sense-memory of this play’s technical design sent me right back to the musty halls of my own high school.
Far from the psychedelic, sexualized fantasies of “Euphoria” or “Riverdale,” the nuanced and relatable teenagers of “John Proctor is the Villain” are a rare pleasure. Moving fluidly between humor and dread, this play will remind you how slow progress has been since #MeToo caught a storm in 2017 while also creating satisfying moments of catharsis. With questions of women rights once again in the headlines, “John Proctor is a Villain” is a timely commentary on gender politics, framed through the experience of young women. Catch this riveting play at Studio Theatre while you can and invite the teenagers in your life to join you!
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Age 13+
“John Proctor is the Villain” EXTENDED through June 12, 2022 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. Tickets are available online. Studio Theatre offers discount programs for students and other groups.